The Proud Family: A Black Feminist Television Show?
Anyone who watched the Disney Channel in the early 2000s knows what The Proud Family is. Centered around fourteen-year-old Penny, her family, and her friends, the show has examples of many different aspects of blackness — from family, to motherhood, to womanhood, to negative stereotypes around darker blackness. These stereotypes are not the entirety of the show, which has many black feminist themes and characters; but I posit that they certainly take away from the black feminist lessons of the show.
The show has some major successes which must not be overlooked. Many television programs existed before The Proud Family which featured black leads, but The Proud Family was the first to do so on The Disney Channel and was also one of the first that featured black, female leads. Trudy Proud, Penny’s mother, is one character who is portrayed in a black feminist light. Trudy is a veterinarian, a mother to two young babies, a wife, and a mentor to Penny whom she also mothers. While this does not seem particularly important because many television shows portray mothers as the ones who “do it all”, it is in this case for two main reasons. The first is simply that Trudy is a black woman. Because black motherhood is constantly questioned and historically devalued, this display of strong black motherhood in the media is rare. The second reason is that Trudy is the main bread winner in the house. Trudy supports her family physically, emotionally, and financially.
While Trudy represents a positive, black feminist representation of the black woman and black mother, Dijonay, Penny’s best friend, is in direct contrast to that. Dijonay has many siblings, all of whom are “misbehaved”, and for whom she is frequently a reluctant caregiver. This reinforces stereotypes around lazy black mothers. The mere fact that Dijonay is taking care of her siblings might make viewers ask where Dijonay’s parents are in the first place. Other, darker skinned characters are also put into racial boxes on the show. Oscar, Penny’s father is portrayed as a business failure, lazy, and irresponsible. Oscar is a modern-day caricature of the coon. The Gross Sisters, three black girls who attend school with Penny, serve the role of the black criminals. They hold out their hands, stealing other kids’ money. They are mischievous, they all look raggedy, and they are all blue (a comment on their skin being ashy, which connotes class).
Dijonay, her family, Oscar, and the Gross Sister all hae darker skin than Trudy and Penny. What I am suggesting here is that a possibly unintentional but still visible notion of “ghetto”-ness is attached to the darker-skinned characters on the show. If pushed further, this underlying anti-blackness suggests that black people without a little bit of white in them truly are stereotypes such as the coon, the welfare queen, and the hoodlum.
Is The Proud Family a black feminist television show? Does it matter that there is an episode where Penny dresses up like Angela Davis for a history assignment if black stereotypes are being perpetuated? Does Trudy’s strength and success make the show a black feminist show, even though Dijonay’s mother and Dijonay herself are depicted as lazy black mothers? The Proud Family is rich with messages that can be perceived as anti-blackness and messages which can subvert cultural norms around blackness alike. For the latter, its significance is unwavering. For the former, it perpetuates a culture of anti-blackness and anti-black stereotypes.